Top rights lawyer shocked at Irish views on racism


IRELAND’S RESPONSE to a multiethnic society was comparable to Britain in 1993 before the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence, leading human rights lawyer Imran Khan said yesterday.

Speaking at a conference on racism, Mr Khan said he was genuinely shocked and depressed at the lack of progress on the prevention of racism in Ireland.

“I found it difficult to believe that a seemingly modern, reformed country such as Ireland was still apparently living in the Dark Ages when it comes to issues of race,” he said.

Mr Khan came to prominence for his work representing the family of Mr Lawrence, which led to a public inquiry and the reform of anti-racism legislation in Britain.

Yesterday’s conference, Institutional Racism: Is Ireland Responding? was arranged by national umbrella organisation Alliance Against Racism.

Mr Khan criticised the Government for its failure to grant ethnic minority status to the Traveller community. “No wonder, where the State does not accept that proposition, that this community is the target of widespread negative stereotyping and discrimination,” he said.

The State had “effectively institutionally criminalised” this section of society, he said, by introducing the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, which strengthened anti-trespass laws.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Here was a criminal offence specifically targeting a particular grouping. I just don’t know how it was allowed to get on the statute books,” he said.

He also said the power of gardaí or immigration officials to stop and demand the production of an identity document from a non-Irish national at any time would be viewed as “institutional racism”.

Mr Khan criticised the Government’s failure to ratify international anti-racism treaties and said apart from laws on incitement to hatred, racism was not expressly criminalised in legislation and was not considered an aggravating factor in sentencing.

“One only has to consider the report of the EU fundamental rights agency ranking Ireland in the top 10 of EU states with the highest level of discrimination in everyday life,” he said.

“Somebody should tell the Irish Government that this is not the Eurovision song contest. On this issue you need to get nul points.”

He said institutional racism allowed racism, more generally, to flourish in society.

“However, once racism is recognised by our institutions and leaders, it’s possible to reform by progressing positive actions and legislative changes.”

Also speaking at the conference, Salome Mbugua, director of migrant women’s organisation AkiDwA, said the system of direct provision of accommodation for asylum seekers in Ireland was a “glaring example” of institutional racism. Its impact on mental health and psychological wellbeing was huge, she said, and though it was supposed to last six to nine months, in some cases it went on for nine years.

Migrant communities were also regularly singled out for specific treatment by State institutions, she said, including when trying to find schools.

“Many citizens and residents with foreign-sounding names receive letters from the authorities on a regular basis, checking to see if they are still living in Ireland,” she said.

There also seemed to be a lack of will among politicians to speak out about racism because of a potentially negative effect on their constituency vote, she said.